People have always been interested in their family history, and a couple of recent series on television have just increased that drive to know where and who they come from. New family history researchers begin with the question, “Where do I begin” Well, before plunging into census, web sites, and family tree forms, I suggest you sit down with a piece of paper and write down what you already know. Then take that paper to the next family reunion, or get on the phone or drive to visit your oldest living relatives, and ask them what they know. You may find contradictory names and dates, but include them all. Just be aware that all of the oral information is subject to confirmation and/or change. Peoples’ memories are notoriously faulty. You also may want to decide to work on one branch of the family first, but that’s up to you. Just be organized in your notetaking.
Hopefully relatives will be prompted to find records in the attic, or the family Bible in the book case. Ask them to dig out birth, marriage, and death certificates, and make copies of them. Perhaps there will be photo albums- this is a great time to label them if that has not been done. There is nothing worse than a gorgeous old photo album with no names attached. It’s great to end up with a family tree with photos of some of the people involved. I suggest you don’t limit yourself to names and dates, but collect family stories as well. Photo albums are a great prompt for stories. You can write those down or tape record them (if you still have one of those old fashioned machines).
The next step is to take the information you have and begin to record it on a family tree. You may want to do all of this work online, or you may feel more comfortable writing things down. I inherited family tree records from my mom, who did her work before the internet, so I have it all written down. I have also recorded some of the information online. I like having the written material as it’s easier for me to see connections, plus I can add hard copies of the photos and records I used to do the research, plus my own little notes. But I have also seen family trees online with much of the same information. Then it would be easier to share with other family members, plus unknown family members from all over the world could help with your search, if you choose to make the tree public. This is all your choice.
Familysearch.org is the free genealogy site run by the LDS Church (the Mormons). You can do research and create a family tree there for free. There are several genealogy sites with a fee. I have used Ancestry.com for a number of years for my town historian research. It has an increasingly flexible family tree creator. I have found out some great things from ancestry.com family trees, but 90% of the trees are not well-done, so I am extremely careful with what I find there. As with most things, garbage in, garbage out, and many researchers are eager but don’t do careful work. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use the website as you will be putting in your own information. I suggest you go to a library that subscribes to a couple of the websites and check them out, or look for a free trial period.
If you decide you want to write things down, there are some free forms available online. Check out http://www.familytreetemplates.net. I use both a form that lists a number of generations plus one for each family.
Whichever way you go, be sure to identify the source of any information you record, for example, John Smith, b. Dec 20, 1944. Source, Aunt Tillie. Or John Smith, b. Dec. 20, 1944. Source, birth certificate. Otherwise five years from now you just might not remember where that tidbit came from. In every case, you have to evaluate the reliability of the information you find. 97-year-old Aunt Tillie might not be a good source of a birth date from fifty years ago, but even a family Bible might not be reliable if Aunt Ruth bought it twenty years ago and filled in all the births, deaths, and marriages from 100 years ago to now. If the information in the family Bible has been added in different handwritings over the years, it is more likely to be accurate than one with uniform handwriting, indicating it was purchased and written in by one person from memory. On the other hand, Aunt Tillie might be the only source of information on where Grandma was born, or that she did have a first marriage that she rarely mentioned. She probably has the priceless stories that flesh out the family tree into a story, as well.
An official government document is the best source of information, but even that could be incorrect. Recently I found a death certificate in our town, where the son of the deceased gave the incorrect first name for his grandfather, father of the deceased. In general, though, you can accept the information given on birth, death, and marriage certificates. Gravestones are not official documents. Even though the information on grave markers is “carved in stone”, it isn’t necessarily correct. After all, the dead person usually didn’t provide the information on the stone, and it may have been erected long after the death.
And spelling….unless your name is extremely easy, it is sure to have been spelled in various ways over the centuries. It is important to be flexible in your search- especially searching an alphabetical index- look at all the possibilities you can think of, and don’t discard an interesting item because the name is spelled a little differently from yours. In our town we have many Ackerts, Ackarts, Eckerts, for example, and VanVechtens, VanVeghtens, and Pratt, Bratt! We are lots more conscious of spelling than people in previous centuries. I have seen the same person spell his own name in different ways in the same document. Sometimes spelling can be a clue to pronunciation of a name. An 18th century resident of town had the first name Umphry- which was certainly Humphrey. He probably dropped his H’s when he spoke.
Okay, now you have written down what you and your family members already know, or already have in their possession- records, photos, etc. You are ready to move on. Thanks to information placed on the internet by many wonderful people and organizations, family research is much easier than even ten years ago. In addition, information is available in libraries, town and county clerks’ offices, historical societies, churches, cemeteries, the National Archives, and the state departments of health. You may even want to take a class in genealogy. Watch the newspaper for classes at libraries or sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution or genealogy societies.
Basic sources of information are census, church and cemetery records, vital records, land records, wills, military records, immigration records, old newspapers, specialized web sites, and printed genealogies. Because availability of these records varies from state to state and town to town, it is difficult to generalize about how and where to find them. But more and more of these records are available online. I will focus on what I know well- federal and New York State sources.
One of my favorite census pages- from Troy, 1850 Note the occupation in the center top
Let’s begin with the census. The federal census was taken every ten years from 1790 on. The most recent census available is from 1940. The 1890 census was destroyed. I have paid for an Ancestry.com for many years. It has all the censuses. Familysearch.org, sponsored by the Church of Latter Day Saints- the Mormons, has the census- and all of its other resources- for free. Some libraries have subscriptions to ancestry.com- for example the Easton Library- inquire at your library. Both sites give access to the original census document, and a transcript of the information, helpful as the handwriting is often poor and/or smudged. I often disagree with the folks who did the transcription, though.
The federal census is a great source of family history, but it gives different information each year. Before 1850, the census only gave the name of the head of the household, with just a count of other family members. After 1850 we get not only the names of the whole household, but also their occupations. Some later censuses include information on place of birth of each family member, years having lived in the state, language spoken, etc. Because the census was done by a person going door- to- door, it often reveals family members living next door to each other. It is subject to error, as it’s possible that information was given by a neighbor, or that the census taker was incompetent. Certainly some of them had horrible handwriting! It’s great that the census has been indexed, but that introduces another source of error-by the person reading that bad handwriting and doing the index. One of my ancestors ended up with the most interesting first name of Andr3, instead of Andrew. I can tell you that the more you work with the census, the better you get at finding what you’re looking for. Like many things, “practice makes perfect.”
In New York State, a census was also taken every ten years, on the years ending in 5, from 1825-1925- though none in 1890- 1892 instead. Other states did census in different years. The NYS census records are available at some local libraries on microfilm, for example in Troy Library’s History Room. I have indexed and transcribed some of them for Schaghticoke and posted my results on the town website. The state censuses are also available on both Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org. Of course these censuses duplicate the information of the federal census, but have some interesting differences. For example, the 1865 census records the service of men who fought in the Civil War.
Did you have an ancestor who fought in a war? Hopefully your family has preserved some of his/her papers and maybe a uniform or uniform parts. There is lots of history online of what individual units did in different wars, but you may want or need some more personal information, and that is available as well.
Depending on the war, there are different sorts of records available. The National Archives, http://www.archives.gov/veterans/ and https://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records/pre-ww-1-records.html, has many, many military records from the Revolution to Vietnam and beyond. Most are only indexed online, and can be found and duplicated for you. For example, Civil War pensions cost about $80 for the first 100 pages and take about two weeks to arrive. The US Department of Veterans Affairs hosts this website to find soldiers’ burials around the nation and the world: http://gravelocator.cem.va.gov/ The NYS Division of Military and Naval Affairs, based at the Military Museum in Saratoga, has lots of information about New Yorkers in all wars, from the Revolution to Afghanistan. Other states have information online as well, but I have not found any as good as New York’s.
New York State Muster Roll Abstract- exist online for all NYS Civil War soldiers
Several paid websites: Ancestry.com, Heritage Quest, and fold3 have a number of military records online, for example, Revolutionary War Pension applications. If your Revolutionary ancestor lived long enough- past 1830- and was poor or was an officer, he may have filed for a pension. This meant giving a detailed description of the man’s service during the war. The files also include information on relatives. The lineage society, the Daughters of the American Revolution, has a great website at http://www.dar.org, where the public has access to its records of Revolutionary Patriots and, in fact, to many other sources of family history. Ancestry.com has other Revolutionary War materials- such as listings of revolutionary war militia companies. Moving forward chronologically, the website fold 3 is adding War of 1812 pension papers to its site. Ancestry.com lists other War of 1812 information.
The Civil War (1861-1865) was the next major conflict of the U.S., and there is quite a bit of information available online about Civil War Soldiers. As I said above, the National Archives has the pension files, which I have been told occupy space as large as a football field and as tall as a man. Men who were disabled in the war applied for pensions immediately, as did the widows of soldiers killed in the war. After 1890, almost any surviving veteran could qualify for a pension. The information in pensions varies widely from man to man. The index to this archive is at ancestry.com. Ancestry.com has other nationwide information: the portion of the 1890 census which reported on surviving Civil War veterans in each town plus information at the state level as well. New York State had exceptionally good records of its soldiers, which are all online in ancestry.com. There are the Town Clerks’ Registers of Men who served in the Civil War, and NY Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, which describe each man briefly and describe his service. The National Park Service hosts the Soldiers and Sailors Database, another source of Civil War soldier information. http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm
Charles Brenenstuhl, World War I Soldier. Photo in the NY World War I Veteran’s Service Data in ancestry.com
When it comes to World War I, be aware that the pension papers burned at a fire at the archives in St. Louis in the 1970’s. But I have found that some states have pretty good information online at ancestry.com. Again, New York State has done a particularly good job. All of the World War I draft cards are on ancestry.com, as is a record of each man’s service in the New York World War I Abstract of Service database. In 1921, each town reported on veterans in its town in the New York World War I Veteran’s Service Data, which ancestry also hosts. The kind of data varied from town-to-town, but in Schaghticoke, men described what they did in the war and sometimes sent a photo. The 1930 census had a column headed “Veteran”- with WW denoting World War I veterans.
The National Archives, NYS Military Museum, and Ancestry.com also have a variety of information about World War II veterans. The ancestry.com database is not complete. An additional source in NYS for information of all kinds, is the amazing website: http://www.fultonhistory.com . Tom Tryniski has digitized and put online millions of pages of mostly NYS newspapers, which are digitally searchable. I use this site constantly for many research purposes.
As you can see, there are a number of sources to research your soldier ancestor- I haven’t listed them all, and in practice, when I research a soldier, I use a variety of sources. The more I research, the more I can find. Next week, I’ll explore more sources for genealogical research.
Besides the federal and state census and military records, another source of information is vital records: of birth, death, and marriage. These records are a bit harder to get at than the census, and the location of the information varies with the state. I will use New York State, Rensselaer County, and the town of Schaghticoke as my example, as that’s what I know best. But other towns and states will be similar. Some of this information is online, but not in the quantity of other information as most of it is not kept nationally, but state by state or even town by town.
Remember that the record was generated in the place where the event occurred. For example, if your grandfather, a resident of Schaghticoke, died at Samaritan Hospital in Troy, his death certificate will be in Troy. So you may have to do some investigation to find the right location.
Even though Schaghticoke has been a town since 1789, New York State didn’t mandate keeping records until much later, and the town only has birth, marriage, and death records beginning in 1886, with strict rules for release of information mandated by New York State. No information shall be released from a sealed birth certificate. Information may be released if the birth certificate has been on file for at least 75 years and the person in the certificate is deceased, if the death certificate has been on file for at least 50 years, and if the marriage certificate has been on file for at least 50 years and the bride and groom are deceased. The time periods are waived if the person wishing the information is a descendant of the person in the record, or is designated by the descendant to receive the information. The town clerk may require proof that the person is a descendant. The clerk will copy the information for you, and the fee is $22. You may find that other towns in New York State have records from an earlier date, and towns in New England often do. You may also find that some clerks are easier to work with than others.
Birth, marriage, and death records may also be on file in the church which the people attended. If you don’t know the church your ancestor attended, you may end up checking with every church in a town. In my experience, churches are not wonderful at keeping records. Tombstones and cemetery offices may also have birth and death information. As I said in earlier, tombstones are usually, but not always accurate. If your ancestor was buried in a cemetery that is still receiving burials, there may be a cemetery office with more extensive interment records. For example, some of the cards on file at Elmwood Cemetery in Schaghticoke give all of the information that would be on a death certificate- including the parents of the deceased, and sometimes their birthplaces, as well as cause of death. Some of the cards give no information beyond the name. You may get information from churches and cemeteries by writing letters, but, if possible, it is better to go to the site. Church and cemetery employees often have to put answering genealogical questions at the bottom of the stack of work they have to do. I suggest calling or writing ahead to make an appointment to see those people.
Last week I started to write about sources of birth, death, and marriage records for genealogists. Beyond town clerks, you can turn to your town historian.
Every town in New York State has a town historian. She or he may also have some vital records, as well as other genealogical information. You may find information about the historian on the town’s website, but a letter addressed to “town historian, town of _______” should reach the person. In the case of the town of Schaghticoke, check out the links on the town’s web site. I also have an index to the records of the Schaghticoke Dutch Reformed Church, spanning about 1750-1840, which is not on the site. Be persistent in reaching the town historian. He/she is often virtually a volunteer, and may not check in with the office frequently.
Some vital records have been posted online. All of the major commercial family search websites include varying amounts of vital records Try http://www.Ancestry.com , and http://www.HeritageQuest.com. For example, Ancestry.com has the Social Security Death Index, for those who died after 1935. This gives the name of the person, date and location of death. The Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons or LDS) also has an excellent free website, http://www.familysearch.org , which incorporates many church records. More localized information is on the US GenWeb site, which is a national free site run by volunteers and organized by state and county. The Rensselaer County address is http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nyrensse/. In Rensselaer County, the LDS church has catalogued all cemeteries, with the information online at the website just given. The amount and quality of information varies widely with the county and state. As I have said before, you may find that your library has a subscription to HeritageQuest and/or Ancestry.com, saving you the fee.
Sample of a family record page from a family Bible- a good one, added to gradually over time
New York State also has birth, death, and marriage records on file in the Department of Health, beginning in 1880. If you desire a copy of the original record, this is the way to go. You will need to fill out an application form, available at the NYS Dept. of Health Vital Records Section, online, and send it with $22 for each record desired. Unfortunately, it will take at least six months to get a response to your request. You could also go to the Health Department in person, (800 North Pearl St, 2nd floor, Rm 200, Menands) fill out an application, pay, and receive a response by mail in 7-10 days.
If you don’t know the year of your ancestor’s birth, marriage, or death (after 1880), there is an index to all of the records at the Health Department at the New York State Archives, on the 3rd floor of the NYS Education Department (the building where the NYS Museum is). Unfortunately, you will have to search the index year by year, though each year is alphabetical. If you don’t know the exact date of the birth, death, or marriage, you can also pay the Health Department to search. The original $22 fee includes a search of three years on each side of the year you request, the Health Department website quotes fees for wider searches, generally about $20 more for each five more years searched.
You might find other family history information in land records and wills. Again I will use my town and Rensselaer County as my examples, though the research should be similar in other parts of New York State. Other states may be different.
Why look at deeds? Deeds records property transfers, which may be from father to son or brother to brother, confirming family relationships. Often husband and wife transferred land, confirming marriages. It can also be fascinating to find out where your family lived. When family researchers visit me at my office, one of their most common requests is to see where their families lived. They find it very satisfying, uplifting, and illuminating to stand in the footsteps of their ancestors.
In looking for deeds, it may be important to know something of the history of the county and town where your ancestor lived. Most counties had a history written about them in the late 19th century, available at the local library or from the town historian, and often published online. This will let you know when the county was established, and what land grants it came from before that. For example, Rensselaer County was created from Albany County in 1790. If you are doing deed research before that, you would need to go to Albany County. In the case of Schaghticoke, the area around the Knickerbocker Mansion was part of a land grant belonging to the city of Albany. Settlers who lived there until the early 1800’s actually rented the land from the city of Albany, so land records for them are in the city of Albany. In the case of the town of Schaghticoke, from 1819 to 1912 the Pleasantdale and Speigletown sections of town were part of Lansingburg, rather than Schaghticoke. Doing a bit of reading about the history of the area where your ancestors lived can save you searching in a courthouse or town hall where there would be no chance of finding any information.
Deeds in Rensselaer County are in the annex of the Courthouse, with the entrance on 3rd St, just at the back of the big Courthouse building in Troy. Once there, I suggest asking for help with the indexes to deeds, the grantee and grantor indexes. Grantees are the people buying land; grantors are the people selling land. The terminology in deeds can be difficult, so don’t be discouraged. In addition, some old deeds are handwritten, some have been retyped. The courthouse also has a few old maps of the county. The courthouse record room is open Monday to Friday from 9-5, and until 7 p.m. on Thursday nights.
Another source of land information is old maps. Just about every town had a couple of very detailed maps made in the mid to late 19th century. At the town hall in Schaghticoke, we have a map from 1856 on the wall in the hall, and one in Beers Atlas of 1876 in my office. The maps give the site of every home, with the name of the owner. This can be very helpful if your ancestor owned rather than rented a home. Many of these maps are also online now, or available in libraries. The federal and state censuses in the 20th century also give an address for each family, but usually only the name of the road. Road names and hence addresses have changed fairly frequently, and having an exact address in the country is a mid-20th century development, so it may be hard to pinpoint where ancestors lived.
While in the courthouse, you could check out the wills in the Surrogate’s Court. If your ancestor left a will, it can provide a wealth of information about family connections. You might hit the jackpot and find an inventory of possessions included with the will. In Rensselaer County, the court has an index to wills, and the wills themselves on microfilm or in books. These wills are now included in the ancestry.com data base, along with many, many New York State wills.
TIGS has a ton of information about Troy area people- lots of transcriptions of records, and the index to the Rensselaer County Probate records
If your ancestor did not make a will, that is died intestate, there may still be a file in the records of the Surrogate’s Court. Or if your relative had a will and the estate was complicated or contested, there may be a further file in what are called the probate files. The Court House has them on microfilm. The original probate files are in the Rensselaer County Historical Society, 57 2nd St, Troy. I am proud to say that my mom indexed these thousands and thousands of folders. That index is online on the website of the Troy Irish Genealogical Society (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nytigs/SurrogateCourtRecords/SurrogateCourt_Intro.htm ) Once you find a file which interests you, you can either go to the Rensselaer County Historical Society, pay a $7 fee and see the file in person, or pay a $30 fee for them to pull and photocopy the file for you. http://www.rchsonline.org/library-and-research/. The Library is open Thursday-Saturday from noon to five. Over the years I have seen many family researchers be delighted to find out about family connections from these files, or read an inventory of every room in an ancestor’s home, getting real insight into how they lived.
For other places and states, I can say that the online genealogical sites, from Ancestry.com, to usgenweb.org, have some wills. You might find it worthwhile to check out what is there as part of a general search, but there isn’t the comprehensive information that the county courthouse of the place they lived will have. You could try writing to a county historian or historical society in any state to ask for help- or ask for them to recommend a local researcher. Or this may be a case where a trip in person would pay off. If you decide to travel, I strongly recommend calling, emailing, or writing ahead to local historians to find out where you should visit and schedule appointments. Over the years, I have had a number of researchers show up from hundreds of miles away with no notice. Many historians are part-time or volunteers so may not be available to help you, and sources of information vary widely from place to place. Why risk a long trip for nothing?!
All of us have immigrant ancestors. The date they arrived in the US determines how to find information about them. The US Congress passed a law requiring manifests, or lists, for ships arriving in the US, beginning in 1819. For arrivals before that date, there are some books and web sites which have compiled information on immigrant arrivals in the colonial period. One is the Immigrant Ship Transcribers’Guild (http://www.immigrantships.net/) This site will take some time to navigate, but there is a lot there.
After 1819, the US passed many laws on procedures for recording immigrants, and the records that were kept varied, but between the National Archives: http://www.nara.gov, and the Ellis Island web site, http://www.ellisisland.org, you should be able to find information on immigrant ancestors. It can be very difficult if your ancestor has a common last name, but the indexes to the ship manifests are at the National Archives, and the ship manifests after 1895 are all online and indexed at the Ellis Island site.
There are also organizations and web sites that focus on the details of finding a particular nationality of immigrant, for example Irish or Italian. Watch for newspapers advertising local workshops on those topics, as well. I strongly recommend attending a special session for your nationality of interest.
Of course your ancestor didn’t necessarily arrive in New York City, at Ellis Island or its predecessor. There were many ports up and down the Eastern seaboard, including Canada, so you may have to check the National Archives for non-Ellis Island arrivals. After 1895, the US border with Canada closed, and immigrants from Europe entering the US from Canada were recorded. There are indexes to those arrivals at the National Archives as well. There used to be a branch of the National Archives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It closed several years ago, but its collection of microfilmed records and books were transferred to the public library, the Berkshire Athenaeum. The website for the genealogy section of the library is: http://www.pittsfieldlibrary.org/genealogy.html.
If you don’t know when your immigrant ancestor arrived in the US, you can get some idea from the census. The 1900, 1920, 1920, and 1930 US censuses and the 1855, 1905, 1915, and 1925 New York State censuses all had a question about how long an immigrant had been in the US. Of course, depending on the memory of the person, and who actually answered the census question- the person himself or a neighbor- that information may be more or less accurate. The census also indicates the country the person came from- though the names may have changed over the years. For example, “Austria-Hungary” means the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and may include parts of what are now Poland and Russia. That’s why the naturalization papers are important too.
Once the immigrants arrived, a next step for many was to become naturalized citizens of the US. The process of naturalization generated a number of documents, another boon for family history researchers. Naturalization was usually handled through the county courts in New York State, so that is where you would have to search for information. One web site, http://www.italiangen.org, has a partial index to naturalizations in New York Counties, and http://www.familysearch.org also has some county courthouse records. Ancestry.com has quite a few naturalization records as well. Depending on the type of record, you may find information on where your relative came from in Europe and his family.
As you can tell, this topic is complicated. There are many websites that explain more about the topics I have introduced. Your hard work will be worth it when you find the original manifest listing your immigrant ancestor’s arrival in New York City, along with how much money he had in his pocket and the name of the little town in Ireland or Italy from which he arrived.
This is a huge topic, and I feel hesitant to even broach it with my limited experience. I hope I have given you enough information to get started, at least. Once begun, I think you will find genealogy rather addictive, and extremely rewarding. As town historian, I meet many people who plan their vacations around visiting places their ancestors lived, both to do more research and just to walk in their footsteps, see the vistas they saw. And that is just in Schaghticoke. How about planning that trip to Ireland or Italy to research there? My daughters have had a great time visiting some of my husband’s Irish relatives. The internet will provide lots of hint on European research before you go.
Here is a summary of some useful local places for research, both physical and online. As before, I am restricting myself to Rensselaer County, but every county will have similar resources.
Places: The New York State Library and Archive, in the Cultural Education Center in Albany- census,
Index to vital records, genealogy
The New York State Health Dept., 800 North Pearl St., Menands- vital records
The Rensselaer County Courthouse Annex, 105 3rd St., Troy- Naturalization, wills, deeds
The Rensselaer County Historical Society, 57 2nd St., Troy- wills, city directories, books
Troy Public Library, Troy History Room, 100 2nd St. Troy- census, newspapers on
microfilm,index to vital records in the local papers city directories, access to ancestry.com
Family History Center, Loudonville; access to state census, church records
Churches and cemeteries
Other libraries have access to ancestry.com and other paid sites
Sites: http://www.usgenweb.org free, information input by volunteers, very localized
http://www.ancestry.com available at many libraries, by subscription at home
http://www.heritagequest.com available at libraries, by subscription at home
http://www.familysearch.org the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) website- free
http://www.dar.org the site of the Daughters of the American Revolution-
http://www.rootsweb.org another free site
http://www.nara.gov the National Archives site
http://www.ellisisland.org all of the arrivals at Castle Garden and Ellis Island
http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nytigs Troy Irish Genealogical Society- index of probate records in
Rens. Cty, lots of other Irish related stuff
There are thousands of websites that may help with family research. Also, remember that every town in New York State has a town historian who should at least be able to point you in the right direction. And every town hall will have vital records from about 1880 on. Good luck!